HELSINKI, Finland - From the 2016 U.S. presidential election to the Brexit vote, fake news and disinformation, spread primarily on social media, has had a big impact in recent years.
One country thinks it has found the answer to countering the false information designed to sow division and it has nothing to do with big tech or artificial intelligence.
Finland recently ranked at the top in a study measuring a country's resilience to the post-truth phenomenon. The focus here is not on big tech or on algorithms but to look inwards at society. The first line of defense is in school classrooms and in the minds of students, who have frank discussions about the news and what they see in social media.
"We don't have a [separate] critical thinking lesson. It's built in all the subjects. It will spread like a plague basically so someone else will be posted afterwards and suddenly it will become "real." Some people will actually think, 'Well it's everywhere, it has to be real.' What we want our students to do is that, before they like or share anything in the social media, they think twice. Who has written this? Where has it been published. Can I find the same information from the another source?" Kari Kivinen, the headmaster of the French-Finnish School of Helsinki, told CNN.
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The aim is to arm the students with a digital literacy toolkit for an online world filled with social media. The national curriculum is part of a huge government effort to raise awareness of disinformation and it seems to be taking hold. Finland is in a unique position when it comes to this particular fight. It ranks near the top of almost every global index: happiness, press freedom, gender equality and social justice. It's difficult here for external actors to find cracks to exploit.
"How Finland has been able to counter this kind of foreign and hostile information activities is the basic foundations of our society. It has taken many generations, but it's always important to remember. It's also easy to lose," said Jussi Toivanen, the Chief Communications Specialist for the Prime Minister's Office.
Many of these foundations were laid shortly after World War II, in part, because the country shares an 832-mile border with Russia. Since declaring its independence more than 100 years ago, Finland has kept a wary eye on its neighbor to the east. Concerns about aggressive Russian disinformation campaigns, including interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, which Moscow denies, made it clear to Finland: It was time to prepare for a new battlefield, one that was moving online.
"Past years we have trained over 10,000 civil servants, citizens, journalists. We have given the basic information about what information influencing is all about," said Toivanen.
The goal is to raise the awareness of the entire society, including older generations who may be experiencing the digital landscape for the first time.
"I don't see any end of this, so it's going to be much more challenging for us to counter these kind of activities in the future and we need to be ready for that," said Toivanen.
As the online landscape becomes ever more complex, Finland is already shifting focus to new challenges and new technologies that will make this battle even harder.
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